Fermanagh councillors call for end to benefits appeals being heard in courthouses
The use of courthouses for benefit appeal tribunals has been criticised, with some councillors in Fermanagh condemning the manner in which hearings are held.
One councillor recounted an experience in which he accompanied a disabled woman to a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeal, describing her treatment as "more than disgraceful".
The matter was brought to Fermanagh and Omagh District Council's monthly meeting by Sinn Fein councillor Barry McElduff.
He urged the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) to spearhead a campaign calling for an end to the use of courthouses for appeals, which he said "criminalises" those fighting to keep their benefits.
Referring to a response on the matter from the Department of Justice, Mr McElduff rejected an assertion the usage of courthouses for benefit appeals is independent and dignified.
"There is no way an appellant being dragged to a courthouse could consider that a dignified setting for an appeal," he said.
Noting both previous Justice Ministers, David Ford and latterly Claire Sugden, supported the initiative, Mr McElduff said appellants already felt criminalised by the venue.
He dismissed the Department of Justice referring to other types of non-criminal hearings in courthouses such as civil and family proceedings.
He suggested the NILGA should consider initiating a joint action of strong opposition against courthouse appeal hearings and urged all other councils to come on board.
Independent councillor Bernice Swift blasted "the whole set-up of welfare reform" and said the process should be scrutinised.
"I don't care if it's a courthouse, a hen house or an outhouse, these heinous appeals shouldn't be happening. I agree a courthouse isn't an appropriate setting and this council should remain fixed in opposing cuts to those most vulnerable in our society," she said.
Josephine Deehan noted a distinct lack of understanding on the part of those involved in the hearing appeals.
"There is very considerable stress caused to people going forward for appeals. For anyone to refer to a dignified experience is an assertion which rings hollow," the independent councillor said.
Donal O'Cofaigh, another independent, described the process of hearing appeals at courthouses as "part and parcel of the criminalisation of vulnerable people".
Councillor John McCluskey said the entire appeals process should be examined and expressed concern at the handling of vulnerable appellants appearing to fight for their benefits.
A note of caution was sounded by UUP councillor Howard Thornton. While supportive of ending the current practice, he said: "We need to be careful when taking functions away from courthouses.
"Enniskillen has been downgraded to a hearing centre and Omagh may face the same. Other forces may use cuts in usage to their advantage."